Anything but Typical: Adapting to Change Through a Pandemic

Five months after sending students home to finish spring semester online, St. Thomas faculty and staff put the finishing touches on preparations to allow the university to resume in-person instruction in the fall.

This story is featured in the fall/winter 2020 issue of St. Thomas magazine.

Five months after sending students home to finish spring semester online, St. Thomas faculty and staff put the finishing touches on preparations to allow the university to resume in-person instruction in the fall.

New signage. Stickers on tables marking where to sit. Extra cleaning supply caddies. Added classroom equipment to accommodate online instruction. Telehealth visits at the Center for Well-Being. Barriers and floor decals to direct foot traffic. Extra face coverings for students who forgot to bring their own. Common Good Capacities (in place of old room capacities).

Those were just some of the more visible measures outlined in the comprehensive COVID-19 preparedness plan.

The statue of Archbishop John Ireland stands on the St. Paul campus adorned with a purple shirt, mask and care packet that was available to all students. Photo by Liam James Doyle.

Yes, campus looked different when students finally returned in September. While it remains to be seen when things will “return to normal,” campus operations may never completely look the same … and that may not be a bad thing.

In fact, adjusting campus operations to keep community members safe may have uncovered processes that could serve the university well into the future long after the COVID-19 era is over.

Assistant Director of Campus Life Jeff Holstein hands out care kits including face coverings and hand sanitizer on John P. Monahan Plaza. Photo by Liam James Doyle.

Telehealth and new skills

Making the campus as safe as possible for students, faculty and staff was a priority for Madonna McDermott and her team at the Center for Well-Being. The center, she noted, has continuously adjusted to meet people's needs during the pandemic.

Changes made early on at the center carried over into the fall including shifting counseling sessions online, conducting medical visits virtually when possible, developing and implementing new flow processes and adding 24/7 mental health urgent care.

Center for Well-Being staff from registered nurses to the front desk team learned new skills, such as additional screening and contact tracing best practices, to effectively respond to the pandemic.

“Every single role and every single person had to learn a lot of new skills very quickly and they have done it with grace and compassion,” McDermott, director of the center, said. “They have been just amazing while still themselves having to cope with the world outside where a pandemic is our day-to-day reality.”

Facilities Management staff Candyce “Candy” Sauer, right, and Dennis Hollie work together to sanitize surfaces in the Anderson Student Center. Photo by Liam James Doyle. 

In-person, online and mixed-mode learning

St. Thomas was prepared more for last spring’s shift to online learning thanks to St. Thomas E-learning and Research (STELAR), a part of Innovation and Technology Services at the forefront of technology-enhanced instruction. In fact, many faculty members who hadn’t taught online prior to the pandemic were already trained to do so.

Close to 2,500 courses were taught online last spring and summer.

“When we made that quick shift, what kept us going was faculty’s care for their students,” Vice President of Academic Affairs Dr. Wendy Wyatt said. “Even if things were a little rocky in figuring out how to have class online, students felt cared for by their professors. Students and faculty were giving each other a lot of grace.”

Opus College of Business leadership and management major Viridiana Martinez ’21 said her professors in the spring were “open and flexible” with the shift to online learning.

International student Simon Zamani wears a mask on the St. Paul campus. Photo by Mark Brown.

“Even though it was virtual and through emails, I still felt very connected with them,” Martinez said.

While technology made the shift to online learning possible, it’s not a cure-all. Dr. Paul J. Wojda, chair of faculty for 2020-21, said online courses give flexibility to faculty and students, but it can be challenging to assess what works and what doesn’t in evaluating teaching effectiveness. He also noted creating a good online course takes time, effort and technical support.

In order to support room capacity limits, individual learning preferences and health needs, courses in the fall were offered in three ways: in-person, online or mixed-mode (a combination of both). Regardless of the format, the university worked hard to make sure its values were carried forward.

“St. Thomas has always been committed to giving students personal attention – that’s just who we are and what we do,” Dr. Nakeisha Lewis, associate dean of undergraduate and accelerated master’s programs in Opus College of Business, said.

Students wear masks in an economics class in O'Shaughnessy Educational Center. Photo by Mark Brown.

Over the summer, all classrooms and teaching spaces were upgraded to support broadcasting content to remote students, as well as to record class sessions. With new pan-tilt-zoom cameras, microphones with broad audio pickup, and annotation monitors, St. Thomas has the ability to be more flexible in delivering courses.

“Good teaching is good teaching, regardless of the mode, and we have so many amazing faculty teaching at St. Thomas who were really committed to making their spring courses the best possible given the conditions,” Director of STELAR Lisa Burke said. “Faculty worked extremely hard over the summer to prepare for fall, participating in our online teaching certificate courses and faculty forums, and consulting with instructional designers to plan engaging course content, activities and assessments that will leverage the existing technologies.”

People walk by the Anderson Student Center on a beautiful autumn day. Photo by Liam James Doyle.

Burke said STELAR has also done a lot of work supporting the way content is presented online in terms of accessibility and equity.

“Technology can be a great equalizer by giving students access to materials in a way that meets their learning needs and personal preferences,” she said.

Preparing the campus

While faculty shifted to teaching online and planning for the fall, Associate Vice President of Facilities Management Jim Brummer and his team got to work right away on the eventual return of the St. Thomas community.

Hundreds of new hand sanitizer stations were placed throughout campus. Classrooms were set up according to social distancing criteria. Signs to direct traffic flow and designate room occupancies were posted. Designated areas for students unable to isolate or quarantine at home were created.

Some noteworthy changes to ensure a healthy campus community weren’t as noticeable. Brummer’s team studied heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems to determine capabilities. He noted there are two ways HVAC systems can be used in response to concerns about infectious disease within spaces – filtering or diluting the indoor air.

One potential change for the future is ensuring that the university’s HVAC systems are designed for extremely efficient filters such as MERV 13. Since many of the university’s HVAC systems aren’t currently equipped for that level of filtration, Facilities Management increased the amount of fresh outdoor air – sometimes two to three times the normal amount – supplied to indoor spaces. This level is consistent with standards set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Minnesota Department of Health.

"We're prepared to do whatever we have to do to make sure that we can educate students and fulfill our mission." – Jim Brummer, associate vice president of facilities management

Training staff was another important initiative.

“We went through an extensive process of making sure the staff understands what COVID-19 is, understands their role in protecting the St. Thomas community and the users of our facilities, and their role in protecting themselves from possibly contracting the virus,” Brummer said. “That will be a continuous education process with our staff ... that they know how to access the personal protective equipment required to do their job, that they understand overall how the virus acts within spaces on surfaces and why it’s important to do the job the way that they do.”

Looking into the future, Brummer said the pandemic is being taken into account in the design of classrooms for the future Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM) complex on south campus.

“We’re prepared to do whatever we have to do to make sure that we can educate students and fulfill our mission,” Brummer said.

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